Native to Southeast Asia, the camellia comes in countless shapes and sizes. It ranges in size between a few feet to over fifty feet. It can be compact, rounded, tall, spreading, tiered or low growing, depending on species. Flower color ranges from pure white to clear red and many shades of pink, often with bright yellow stamens showing. The blossoms can have single, semi-double or double petal arrangements. The leaves are a rich, glossy green that stand out in the winter landscape. This plant grows best in acidic soil with a good supply of water, especially during the late summer when it’s often dry and flower buds are in the process of forming. Most people don’t realize that Camellias are their cupboards. The classic tea is made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis.
Two of the common species are sasanqua and japonica, but what’s the difference? Camellia sasanqua grows 6 to 10 feet tall and blooms in the fall/winter. It grows best in semi-shade, but will tolerate full sun more than the spring blooming japonica. The leaves are usually two inches long, smaller and narrower than japonica and the new twigs are fuzzy, not smooth like japonica. Flowers are short lived (less than a week) before petals drop, but many enjoy the colorful carpet of petals that forms around the base of the shrub. Sasanquas grow best in climates similar to their native habitat with hot summers and mild winters, like the southern United States. They will tolerate our cold winters, but may have leaf damage or leaf drop and problems with flower bud formation. They can easily be grown in containers, or espaliered against a wall or fence.
Camellia japonica is a bigger plant with larger leaves, reaching 8 to 15 feet. It blooms later, during the winter/spring. The best time to prune camellias is after they flower each year, just before the plants starts growing in earnest for the season. Use a fertilizer for acid loving shrubs during this time of new growth to supply nutrients. Both types of camellias have a long bloom period, showing color for most of the season. Enjoy winter flowers and try a camellia!
Resources: Camellias, The Complete Guide to their Cultivation and Use by Jennifer Trehane, 1998.